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Public transit riders need distanced ways to commute, but path forward is uncertain

The nation’s top transit systems have experienced 70% to 90% declines in ridership during the pandemic. Analysts believe that some of these losses could be sustained for years. As lockdowns get lifted, workers will need new socially distanced strategies to get to work.

New York City is considering how to stagger traffic on its subway and bus systems to allow returning workers to maintain a safe distance. Sarah Feinberg, interim president of New York City Transit, said:

I keep getting the question, how are we going to maintain 6 feet of distance on the New York City subway system? The answer is that’s not going to be possible.

Riders will be required to wear face coverings. The subway will shut down during the wee hours so the system can be disinfected. Feinberg said:

It’s just not an option for everyone to drive in New York.

New York is not alone. CityLab reports:

San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Agency (SFMTA) has ceased rail operations and eliminated nearly 70% of its bus network. In Washington, DC, buses are serving just 26 ‘lifeline’ routes, and Metro trains are running on Saturday schedules.

The answer cannot be broad adoption of personal cars, even if they are increasingly zero-emissions. Leaving environmental concerns aside, an increase in urban congestion beyond pre-pandemic levels would make cities unlivable.

Some passengers will continue to work remotely, and others will consider biking or scooters. This could pave the way for an unprecedented boom in electric bikes and scooters — with a mix of privately owned devices and modified shared services.

But any grand visions for ubiquitous shared mobility, whether via shared bikes and scooters or autonomous vehicles, are being called into question. The core design of the GM Cruise Origin self-driving vehicle — and its central business model — is based on four to six riders sharing close quarters. Any form of carpooling, whether via ride hailing or AVs, will be a tough proposition for quite some time.

Jeffrey Tumlin, executive director of the SFMTA, said:

For many years, we had a lot of aspirations for transit: We want it to beat traffic, fight climate change, and revitalize communities.

We’re in an extraordinary period of time to rethink how we manage our streets. We have to set the city up not only for a stronger recovery but also for a more urban, humane economy.

Viable options, other than personally owned bicycles, private electric mobility devices, and telecommuting, are not obvious. How do you think it will play out?

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Avatar for Bradley Berman Bradley Berman

Bradley writes about electric cars, autonomous vehicles, smart homes, and other tech that’s transforming society. He contributes to The New York Times, SAE International, Via magazine, Popular Mechanics, MIT Technology Review, and others.